Are you struggling with your pronunciation?
That's because you have yet to learn the Sounds of Portuguese.
I often hear people say that Portuguese sounds different from any other Romance language. And that’s because it’s true, really.
So, what is so special about European Portuguese pronunciation?
In short, European Portuguese is characterized by an abundance of hushing, nasal, and close-vowel sounds. These phonological traits make it reminiscent of Slavic languages, even though it is a Romance language.
There’s, of course, much more to it.
Welcome to this comprehensive guide to European Portuguese pronunciation. If you are a beginner, then stick around to start off on the right foot. Most intermediate students, too, will find this guide very helpful.
In what follows, we’re going to be looking into (1) why pronunciation matters, (2) European Portuguese pronunciation’s general features, and (3) we’ll be breaking European Portuguese phonology into its elemental sound units. Finally, (4) we’ll be looking at basic spelling-pronunciation patterns.
Let’s get started.
- Why you should care about your pronunciation
- Common features of Portuguese pronunciation
- Portuguese language elemental sounds
- Spelling-pronunciation patterns in Portuguese
Note! When it comes to pronunciation, it really becomes relevant to distinguish between European and Brazilian Portuguese. Learn more about these two standards and how they compare: European vs. Brazilian Portuguese – How Different Are They, Really?
1. Why you should care about your pronunciation
Clear pronunciation is vital to put all those insecurities away when speaking in your target language.
By feeling more confident in speaking Portuguese, you will be likely to engage more often in conversation, which in turn feeds back into clearer pronunciation and a more articulate speech.
Such a virtuous cycle puts you well on track towards fluency, which by the way might well be your ultimate goal, am I right?
And yet, in my experience as a language teacher and coach, students tend to prioritize grammar and vocabulary over pronunciation.
There is this widespread notion among language learners that pronunciation is something that naturally improves over time. Well, I’m afraid that is not the case. In fact, it might be quite the opposite.
You see, left to its own devices, an underperformed pronunciation is likely to settle in for good. The later you act upon it, the harder it will be to get to grips with it. Thus, it is wise to work on it right off the bat.
So, becoming acquainted with the Portuguese basic sounds is among the first things you want to do as you start your learning journey. It’s simple, your pronunciation skills are a function of your ability to reproduce those basic sound units.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of Portuguese elemental sounds, let’s take a peek at a few prevailing phonological features of Portuguese.
2. Common features of European Portuguese pronunciation
On several occasions, I’ve heard people say that European Portuguese sounds like a cross between Spanish and Russian*!
At first, I took it as a joke. Then I gave it some thought and realized that this might well be the case for foreigners hearing the language for the first time.
Broadly speaking, one can say that European Portuguese has three kinds of sounds that stand out: (1) close-vowel sounds, (2) hushing sounds, and (3) nasal sounds.
*Learn more about phonological similarities between Portuguese and Russian: Here’s why Portuguese sounds like Russian.
You’ve probably noticed that the Portuguese language sounds less vibrant than other Romance languages, such as Spanish or Italian, or even Brazilian Portuguese for that matter. This is mainly due to the high frequency of close-vowel sounds present in the spoken language.
See, Portuguese is a stress-timed language (as opposed to syllable-stressed languages), which means that the time gaps between stressed syllables are fairly consistent – this implies the reduction of unstressed syllables for them to fit into those fixed time-slots.
In turn, syllable reduction of unstressed syllables results in close vowels and less clearly pronounced sounds compared to the stressed syllables (more on vowel sounds further down).
All in all, syllable reduction and close vowel sounds make understanding (and pronouncing) Portuguese more challenging than, say, Spanish.
This is the reason why many students of Portuguese have a hard time with their listening comprehension and pronunciation. However, that’s nothing listening practice and phonological awareness won’t fix.
Fricative, hushing sounds (as in the word sheep) permeate the language.
In Portuguese, most nouns are pluralized by adding the letter s at the end, the so-called s-plural, which renders a hushing sound.
Also, the s-plural applies to articles, pronouns, and adjectives, thus adding to the prevalence of this fricative sound.
There are, too, several other spelling patterns that produce this hushing sound. I will get back to it in more detail further down.
Nasal sounds, too, are a prominent phonological feature in Portuguese. We have both vowel nasal sounds and diphthong nasal sounds.
Vowel nasal sounds are not so alien to native English speakers. Words like among and amazing produce similar nasal sounds (so-called velar nasal sounds). Diphthong nasal sounds, on the other hand, might be more trying.
Below, we’ll look into all these and other sounds in greater detail.
Practice tips! Here’s something for you to work on those “thorny” sounds: 25 Portuguese Tongue Twisters to Improve Your Pronunciation Skills.
3. European Portuguese elemental sounds
In this section, we’ll go through the basic sounds of the Portuguese language. They are displayed according to the following subgroups:
Portuguese uses the same alphabet* like English, plus a few diacritical marks, namely 4 accent marks and the cedilla underneath the c (ç).
Now, the same sound can be represented by different letters or clusters of letters. Similarly, one letter can stand for several sounds. For instance, take the vowel e which stands for 5 different vowel sounds!
Thus, it is useful to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) when going through language sounds. Why?
Well, each IPA symbol stands for one and only one sound – IPA is based on a 1-to-1 relationship between symbols and language sounds.
In the tables below, you’ll see IPA symbols in the first column representing the language sound in question. The second column shows the alphabet letters, or clusters of letters, that can stand for that same sound. Finally, in the third column, you have word examples for the sound and spelling in point.
*Learn more about the Portuguese alphabet and diacritics: The Portuguese Alphabet: Spelling in Portuguese from A to Z.
Most consonant sounds in Portuguese are also present in English (perhaps not the exact same sounds, but still very similar). Those sounds that have no equivalent in English are marked in red.
|IPA||common letters||word example|
|/k/||c, q||nunca, quente (never, hot)|
|/R/||r, rr||rio, terra (river, earth)|
|/s/||s, ss, c, ç, x||santo, massa, cem, caça, próxima (saint, pasta/dough, hundred, hunt, next)|
|/ʃ/||s, z, ch, x||peras, capaz, chato, extinto (pears, capable, boring, extinct)|
|/z/||s, z, x||casa, azeitona, exatamente (house, olive, exactly)|
|/ʒ/||g, j||gelado, janela (ice-cream, window)|
|/j/||i, e||pai, passear (father, stroll)|
|/w/||u, o||pau, voar (stick, fly)|
In Portuguese, there are 9 different vowel sounds represented by the vowel letters a, e, i, o, and u. As mentioned before, the vowel e, alone, stands for 5 different sounds.
In general, Portuguese vowel sounds are not alien to English native speakers. It is difficult, however, to establish a definitive correspondence between the two languages due to different standards of English.
Let’s listen to what Portuguese vowels sound like:
|IPA||common letters||word example|
|/a/||a, á||amar, cá (love, here)|
|/ɐ/||a, e||sala, joelho (living room, knee)|
|/ɛ/||e, é||anel, até (ring, until)|
|/e/||e, ê||comer, Português (eat, Portuguese)|
|/i/||i, e||sorrir, emanar (smile, emanate)|
|/ɔ/||o, ó||obra, avó (masterwork, grandmother)|
|/o/||o, ô||fervor, repôr (passion, replace)|
|/u/||u, o||mudo, ato (mute, act)|
Note that the vowel sounds /a/, /ɛ/, and /ɔ/ are open, whereas /ɐ/, /e/ or /o/ sound relatively closed; there is even the /ɨ/-sound which is nearly mute.
This openness vs. closeness sound contrast ties back into what was discussed above, namely the vowel reduction occurring in stress-timed languages like Portuguese.
Nasal vowel sounds
Portuguese nasal vowel sounds are similar to those in English, like in the words anger, kindness, and mantra.
|IPA||common letters||word example|
|/ɐ̃/||ã, am, an||lã, amplo, antes (wool, ample, before)|
|/ẽ/||em, en||embora, entretanto (though, meanwhile)|
|/ĩ/||im, in||importante, introdução (important, introduction)|
|/õ/||om, on||ombro, ponto (shoulder, point)|
|/ũ/||um, un||um, mundo (one, world)|
Diphthongs are gliding vowel sounds between two vowels. Again, you’ll find most Portuguese diphthongs in English.
|IPA||common letters||word example|
|/iw/||iu, io||viu, violeta (saw, violet)|
|/wa/||ua, oa||água, mágoa (water, sorrow)|
Nasal diphthongs abound in Portuguese. They are often represented by a pair of vowels with a diacritical mark on top, the tilde.
These sounds are not found in English or many other languages. If that’s the case with your mother tongue, you might need some practice reproducing them until they become second nature to you.
|IPA||common letters||word example|
|/ɐ̃j̃/||ãe||mãe, pães (mother, breads)|
|/ɐ̃w̃/||ão, am||cão, cantam (dog, they sing)|
|/õj̃/||õe||põe, limões (put, lemons)|
4. Spelling-pronunciation patterns
There is much to be said when it comes to Portuguese spelling-pronunciation patterns and, again, I will be using the IPA-symbols as we go through it (refer to the consonant table above for IPA-symbol–sound clarification).
Hard vs. soft vowels
In Portuguese, a, o, and u are “hard” vowels, whereas e and i are “soft”. This distinction is pertinent because some consonants will produce different sounds depending on if they are followed by soft or hard vowels. Let’s take a look at a few cases.
Letter C – /k/ vs. /s/
If the letter c is followed by a hard vowel – a, o, or u – it will produce the /k/-sound, as in copo (glass). If instead it is followed by a soft vowel – e or i – it will render the /s/-sound, as in cinto (belt).
Letter G – /g/ vs. /ʒ/
If g is followed by a hard vowel – a, o or u – it will produce the /g/-sound, as in gato (cat). If instead it is followed by a soft vowel – e or i – it will render the /ʒ/-sound, as in gelado (ice-cream).
Letters QU – /ku/ vs. /k/
If the letters qu are followed by a hard vowel – a or o – they will produce a /ku/-sound, as in quatro (four). If instead they are followed by a soft vowel – e or i – they will render the /k/-sound, as in querido (dear).
There are a few exceptions though. For instance, in the words tranquilo (tranquil) and cinquenta (fifty), that u is pronounced.
Letters GU – /gu/ vs. /g/
If the letters gu are followed by a hard vowel – a or o – they will produce a /gu/-sound, as in água (water). If instead they are followed by a soft vowel – e or i – they will only stand for a /g/-sound, as in guerra (war).
Again, there are a few exceptions. For example, in the word aguentar (endure), the u is not mute.
Digraphs are consonant pairs which stand for a specific sound. There are five of them in Portuguese.
The double-s always appears stuck in between vowels and produces the same voiceless /s/-sound, as in pássaro (bird).
SS vs. S
If instead, it is a single-s that is stuck in between vowels, it will render a voiced /z/-sound, as in casa (house). Notice, however, that a single-s placed right at the beginning of a word always produces the voiceless /s/-sound, as in sapo (frog).
The double-r always pops up stuck in between vowels and the sound it stands for is produced in the back of the throat, thus resulting in a guttural, rhotic sound – the /R/-sound – as in carro (car).
RR vs. R
The same /R/-sound is produced when a single-r initiates a word, as in rico (rich). A single-r stuck between vowels, on the other hand, produces the alveolar tap /ɾ/-sound, as in caro (expensive).
The digraph ch always produces the same hushing /ʃ/-sound, as in chuveiro (shower). It is a common sound in English and in many other languages.
The digraph nh always produces the nasal /ɲ/-sound, as in ninho (nest). This sound is not found in English.
The digraph lh always produces the palatal /ʎ/-sound, as in velho (old). Oftentimes, students struggle with this sound. Maybe the following video will help:
Qu and gu are only considered digraphs when preceding a soft vowel, namely e or i.
In that case, the letter u in both qu and gu is soundless, meaning that qu and gu will then produce the /k/- and /g/-sound respectively, as in the words quente (hot) or guia (guide).
The omnipresent hushing /ʃ/-sound
As mentioned above, the hushing /ʃ/-sound is a hallmark of the Portuguese language. Here’s an account of the different spelling patterns that render this sound.
Any word ending with the letter s produces the /ʃ/-sound. This will be the case for most plural nouns (e.g., casas), pronouns (e.g., elas), articles (e.g., umas), adjectives (e.g., verdes) and verb forms (e.g., somos).
S before a consonant
The /ʃ/-sound is produced every time the letter s comes right in front of a voiceless consonant, as in the words estou and espera.
CH and X
As we’ve seen above, the digraph ch always translates into a /ʃ/-sound. Also, the letter x predominately stands for this sound (more on x below).
Z at the end
Finally, any word ending with z, as in capaz, will produce the /ʃ/-sound on that same last syllable.
The letter “X” stands for 4 different sounds and learners tend to complain about it, as they’ll often guess it wrong. There are a few patterns that can make your life easier in that regard. Let’s take a look at them.
Most commonly, the letter x produces the hushing /ʃ/-sound. As a matter of fact, all words starting with x render that sound, as in xadrez.
Also, whenever the x is right in front of another consonant, as in texto, the sound produced will be the same, that is, the /ʃ/-sound.
Things get a little more complicated when the letter x is stuck in between vowels. In that case, there are 3 possibilities and no definitive rules. Still, in most cases, it will render the above-mentioned /ʃ/-sound, as in Bruxa.
In other cases though, it produces a /ks/-sound. Most of the time, these words will have English cognates that are also pronounced with the same /ks/-sound. Take for instance the words tóxico (toxic) or fluxo (flux).
The letter x can also stand for the /z/-sound. Typically, these words also have English cognates*, but they render the /gs/-sound instead. Some examples are exótico (exotic) and executar (execute).
Finally, the letter x can stand for the /s/-sound. This, however, is rare and you should look at it more as an exception. The words próximo and máximo are two examples.
*Speaking of cognates, you may know more Portuguese words than you think you do. Here’s a read to make you realize just that: English-Portuguese Cognates – The Words You Already Know (Without Knowing It).
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